KYOTO, March 19 — Is there a food more pristine and clean-tasting than tofu? With a texture wobblier than curd and a character more august than jelly, tofu is something everyone can sup on, from peasants to princes. Yet have you ever had a meal where every dish is made from tofu?
This is the selling point of Tosuiro, a restaurant in the 1,200-year-old city of Kyoto (considered by many to be Japan’s historical heart) that specialises in oboro-dofu made from 100 per cent local soybeans. Oboro means “cloudy” in Japanese; the moniker derived from the soft and downy (hence cloud-like) consistency resulting from simmering soy milk over the stove for hours.
To get to the restaurant, we turn into a small alley nestled along Kiyamachi-dori, just west of the river Kamogawa. Here we discover an old machiya (traditional wooden townhouse) easily identified by the large white chochin paper lantern outside its entrance.
We spot little egrets by the river hunting for fish. (This is the main Kiyamachi restaurant of Tosuiro; there is another branch at Gion nearby that lacks the river view.)
Décor-wise, Tosuiro is not unlike most machiya townhouses — plenty of koshi (wooden latticework) interspersed with bamboo; tatami mats carpeting the private rooms; and prized seating at the chef’s bar where we can observe first-hand some of the oboro-dofu dishes being made.
During summer, there is the bonus of kawayuka, seasonal terrace seats installed above the river Kamogawa so patrons can enjoy their meals accompanied by the sounds of rolling water and river birds.
To be honest, tofu is far from a complicated food. Originally created in China over 2,000 years ago, tofu was first brought to Japan during the Nara Period (710-784) by Kentoushi (Japanese envoys to China). It was much later, during the Kamakura Period (1135-1333) when Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan that tofu became part of the local diet, though a strict vegetarian one known as Shojin cuisine.
Basically made by coagulating soy milk (dried soybeans soaked and ground in water) and pressing the curds into blocks, tofu was called shirakabe or “white wall” in the past. A beautiful name but the food itself was commonplace.
Kyoto’s role in elevating this humble ingredient into an artform, however, has made the city a haven for tofu lovers worldwide.
The secret to the delicate taste and the creamy texture of Tosuiro’s oboro-dofu lies in the ultra-pristine Kyoto water and the high quality soy beans, a far cry from the commercial variety found in supermarkets.
And what’s the best way to showcase this artisanal tofu in a myriad guises to eager diners? Why, a tofu “degustation”, naturally.
Not unlike a tofu kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course meal), elegant waitresses clad in kimonos serve the various courses on fine ceramic dishes. Beginning with a cup of hot hojicha (charcoal-roasted green tea) to cleanse our palate, we are presented with an amuse-bouche of kawari-dofu or tofu mixed with other ingredients such as egg, fish and vegetables. Nothing too intense; more of a hint of the sophisticated forms this simple soy curd can take.
Next up is a cube of goma-dofu (sesame tofu) garnished with nothing more than a dab of wasabi — and needing nothing more, really. Thickened naturally with kuzu (Japanese arrowroot), it’s creamy and mildly nutty from the restrained use of sesame paste. This is like no tofu we’ve tasted before. Plain-looking, yes, but with layers of subtle flavours.
Freshly made and chilled yuba (bean curd skin) is served simply on a single shiso leaf with only grated ginger and pickled radish to add some colour. Yuba is made by continuously skimming the film that forms on the surface of simmered soy milk until no liquid remains. Here at Tosuiro, yuba is also served with slices of sashimi, for a contrast of taste and textures.
After these initial courses of chilled tofu dishes, it’s time for us to warm up with some chawan mushi. This being Tosuiro, the chawan mushi is made with tofu, of course. Definitely smoother than any egg-only version we’ve had before.
While waiting for the next course, the pièce de résistance according to our friendly waitress, we bask in our surroundings. Our eyes to take in the carefully arranged ikebana flower arrangements and the painted scrolls on the walls.
Tosuiro’s signature dish is their oboro-yudofu that arrives at the table or counter in a handmade cypress wood container. Inside, fresh tofu and leafy greens simmer gently in dashi stock. We are instructed to wait a few minutes while the tofu is cooked — a process called yudofu or “hot water tofu” — before helping ourselves to the tender slabs.
We ladle the tofu, greens and dashi into our personal plates, seasoning it only with some soy sauce and chopped green onions to allow the pure taste of the tofu to shine.
Other courses follow, demonstrating the versatility of tofu: tempura-fried nori-wrapped tofu, not unlike our local yong tau foo; lightly baked tofu topped with ginkgo and rainbow-striped kamaboko (cured fish cake); seasonal fritters such as mushrooms and walnut with a touch of tofu in the batter; and the classic pairing of tofu-flecked rice and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables).
Even dessert fits the theme: a mild sorbet made with soy milk.
Tosuiro’s tofu is smooth, creamy and so fragile it literally will melt in your mouth. Yet beyond the fine flavours and the creativity on display, it’s the philosophy behind it all — a deep-rooted respect for a centuries-old food transformed into a revered artform — that makes this an experience that will linger in our memories for months and years to come.
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2pm & 5pm-9:30pm; Sun 12pm-8:30pm